Wednesday, May 9, 2012

my dad wants me to wear hijab

Nope, neither of us is Muslim.

Last week, I moved from Amman (Jordan's liberal capital) to al-Manshiyyeh, a small town outside of al-Mafraq. It's more conservative than what I'm used to, to say the least.

I was advised to make sure I cover my arms all the way down to my wrists, keep my hair back, and wear closed-toed shoes. Walking with guys is a no-go. Acknowledging a guy you know in the street is inadvisable.

Before leaving, I chatted with my dad about where I was going. He's given up trying to influence my travel plans (no, dad, I still don't want to study Arabic in Israel), but he did articulate some concerns about travelling to a small town. Ergo the hijab suggestion.

I'm wary of writing about hot-button Middle Eastern topics. Western media and attention fixates, unproductively, on a small list of subjects: the hijab, Islamists, Israel/Palestine, oil. As important as some of these things are, I'm hesitant to write about them for fear of further exoticizing the Middle East.

I don't want to write about hijabs because the Middle East is more than just a dichotomy of hijab-wearers and non-hijab-wearers. I don't want to write about hijabs because they are too often used as a sloppy proxy for discussion of women's rights in the Middle East. I don't want to write about hijabs because there are far more urgent, far more damaging challenges facing people here.

More concerning to me, at the moment, are gender-specific rules about where you're allowed to go and when you're allowed to go there. I haven't tried testing the boundaries, because I'm living with a family and don't want to tarnish their reputation. But, in general, women don't:

  • walk on the streets after sunset (unless with a male relative);
  • sit in coffee shops (there are none for women, but there are many for men);
  • play soccer on the street. 

In the interest of painting a holistic picture, here's the list for men. Men don't:

  • go to female-only hair cutting salons.

I've tried stretching my notions of cultural relativism to rationalize this, but I just can't.

Personally, I understand cultures having different conceptions of modesty. There is something attractive, in fact, about men and women de-sexualizing themselves a bit by wearing more clothes. As a high school kid, I remember shivering with other girls during the winter because, inconveniently, cute clothes leave skin exposed. I recognize that we are all subject to weird cultural rules dictating what we're supposed to wear.

But freedom of movement is a whole other story. Think about the things you wouldn't be able to do if you couldn't go outside at night? Or hang out in public spaces? When I speak with people about this, they explain that these norms are for women's protection. Men are ravenous and uncontrollable, I've been told, and women don't go out at night because it's too dangerous. But if men are this bestial, why do they get all of the outside world? Why not share it? A few nights for women, a few nights for men?

Admittedly, much of my inspiration for this comes from my sense of limitation right now. So take my words with a grain of salt. Not all of the Middle East is like this. My host brother is nice. He goes outside to buy me food at night. Gender is messed up in America, too. My goal, I suppose, is to articulate what I feel is an actual limitation facing women in small-town Jordan right now.

Back to the hijab. I don't wear one. When walking around town, I'm usually the only post-pubescent female who's hair is showing. It's kind of weird at first but, honestly, I don't think that putting on a hijab would change anything. My backpack and waterbottle betray my Western roots. In fact, I think that putting on a hijab would arouse suspicions. So I put my hair in a ponytail and declare victory. Because the real battle lies elsewhere.


  1. Tara I wish you all the best, and I hope you make the most of this unique experience

  2. Such an interesting perspective! I'm so glad you took the opportunity to live there and really experience what it feels like. I think I would have turned around the same day and returned to Amman :-)

  3. Many thanks. I'm grateful to have such supportive friends!

  4. That was a win win Tara! Yes, choosing you fights is what matter most sometimes.


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